Thursday, July 22, 2021

My Life in Wine Episode 16

In the last episode, I was in New York to help launch the Wine Spectator's first Wine Experience. Attendees milled about the Windows on the World meeting rooms, sipped wine, attended conferences and were entertained by guests like Tom Smothers, aka "Yo-Yo Man."  Then, it was back to California.

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A row of "Painted Ladies," viewed from Alamo Square, San Francisco

The big news around the Spectator offices in San Diego was another move, this time to San Francisco. Moving the newspaper closer to wine country had always been in the works, even if the staff didn't know about it.  There was a little resistance at first, but ultimately, everyone decided to stay with the paper. 

So, with the Wine Experience now part of Spectator history, it was time to prepare for the move to San Francisco. 

Americans live in a mobile society, moving many times in their career for job advancement, or just job security.  The cost of living in San Diego was high, but San Francisco was a shock!  Living in the city was not an option and then there was commuting costs, parking and more. 

In short order, we had to adapt to the new offices in Opera Plaza, unpack, while publishing a newspaper and staying current on wine news.  Looming over everything was a necessary update in the mechanics of laying out and printing a growing newspaper.  The Wine Spectator was still old school: typewriters, manual paste up, writing and sizing was time to come into the computer age. 

All of this change caused a lot of stress and frayed nerves.  But staff writers (James Suckling, Greg Walter and later James Laube) were now close enough to wine country for day trips.  

However, we weren't ready for the accusation from California vintners that the Spectator was a "California publication."  

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Barging on Ole Miss

In the early years, the Spectator had a reputation for being too focused on California wine. The common belief then was because of geography, wine writers west of the Mississippi had a "California palate," (I'm not sure where Oregon and Washington figured in this trope.) while those writers east of the Mississippi (read New York-based) had a "European palate."

To get the word out that the Spectator was a magazine about all wine, I began to actively recruit contributing writers. At the time, the British magazine Decanter was the most-read English language wine magazine and the editors were not shy about claiming an exclusivity to the coverage of European wines. 

Nevertheless, the Spectator needed an image change and the fastest way to do that was to bring writers on board who covered the European wine scene.  Among those that were writing then exclusively about European wines for the British market, and who began to contribute to the Spectator were Michael Broadbent MW, Serena Sutcliffe MW, Hugh Johnson, Alan Spencer, Kit Stevens MW and many more. 

American wine writers that joined a growing list of contributors included: Harriet Lembeck, Richard Paul Hinkle, Robert Lawrence Balzer, Craig Goldwyn, Howard Goldberg, Frank Prial, Tom Stockley and Canadian writer and educator, Tony Aspler.

Although the paper was moving ahead, Marvin Shanken, the publisher and I had growing differences of opinion on the editorial direction. He wanted advertising (including cigars) and editorial to reflect more lifestyle, while I felt a moderate amount of lifestyle ads that related directly to wine and no tobacco was the way to move forward.  

Naturally, the publisher prevailed and so the editor moved on.  For me, leaving the Spectator meant a return to free-lance writing.  I was soon contacted by other wine magazines and that's the next episode of My Life in Wine. 

Next blog:  Shampanskoie

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